“The Real Normal” (Acts 2:42-47)

Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2020

“The Real Normal” (Acts 2:42-47)

We’re hearing a lot of talk these days about “the new normal.” “The new normal”: It means that the way we’ve been living these last seven weeks is how we’re going to have to continue to live for the indefinite future. Depending on the state you live in and who your governor is, you’re going to have to stay at home, self-isolating, and not do any unessential travel. If you do go out for anything deemed essential, you’re going to have to practice social distancing–stay six feet apart from anybody. You’re going to have to wear a mask–or not wear a mask, depending on who you listen to. You should wash your hands every twenty minutes and not touch your face. You need to stay shut in and locked down. Flatten the curve, slow the spread, and wait a year or two for a possible vaccine, which may or may not come. And this is supposed to be “the new normal.”

And for churches, this has been especially rough. Religion was deemed “non-essential.” We were told not to hold public services. In some places, you could have services, but only for ten people or fewer. In other places, you couldn’t have services at all. They even sent police around to give tickets to people attending drive-in services, people staying in their cars in parking lots. The police would write down license plate numbers to keep track of violators. And again, depending on your state and your governor and the local officials, they may be telling you, “Get used to it. Do your services online. This is ‘the new normal.’”

For our congregation, St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bonne Terre, Missouri, we voluntarily decided not to have services temporarily, out of concern for public health and safety. This is now the seventh straight Sunday we’ve missed, plus services on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. We’ve tried to do the best we can in the meantime, doing these live mini-services on Facebook. You’re still getting the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, proclaimed in this way, and that’s good! But in some respects, it’s not the same. Virtual church is not the same as real church, full-bodied church, the church gathered as the people of God.

Right now, we are still in exile. As the psalmist wrote about a previous time when God’s people were in exile: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Their exile lasted seventy years. Our exile has lasted seven weeks. But it still stinks. It’s not normal. The new normal is not “The Real Normal.”

The real normal for the church, what is normal and meant to be normative, is what we find in our text today from Acts 2. I’m going to focus especially on verse 42 as a concise summary of the real normal. First, I’ll read that verse from the Greek original, then I’ll translate and explain.

Acts 2:42: ἦσαν δὲ προσκαρτεροῦντες τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ, τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς.

The ESV translation is overall pretty good, especially compared to some other translations in a few places. The ESV reads: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” But now I’ll try to be a little more precise in translating. Here goes, Acts 2:42, straight from the Greek: “And they were devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”

“And they were”: The first question to ask of course is, Who are the “they” being referred to? Well, it’s the people mentioned in the preceding verses. And that means all the people who had heard Peter’s sermon and repented and believed and were baptized. Peter had preached to a crowd of Jewish pilgrims, gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. Peter preached: “God sent you the promised Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, but you rejected him and had him crucified. But God raised him from the dead, and of that we all are witnesses.” Peter then preached repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, just as Jesus had told his apostles to do. And the Word of God produced its intended effects. The people repented, they believed in Jesus their Savior, they were baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So the “they” is the first Christians, in the early church, in Jerusalem. What was their life as church like? Acts 2:42 goes on to tell us. “They were devoting themselves to”; “They continued steadfastly in.” The Greek indicates ongoing, repetitive, habitual activity. They kept on doing what they were doing. It was their regular practice. They were persevering in, they were attending to, the things that follow. So listed next are those things, four of them, two pairs of two each: “to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”

“The teaching of the apostles”: The apostles were Christ’s chosen messengers. He authorized them, empowered them, and sent them out to preach and teach in his name. “He who hears you, hears me,” he told them. Their names were Peter and James and John and the rest of the Twelve. The apostles’ teaching is foundational for the church for all time. “On this rock I will build my church,” Jesus said of Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” So the first church was listening to the apostles’ teaching on a regular basis, being built up in the faith thereby. And we have that same teaching in the pages of the New Testament. As Peter writes in his epistle: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. . . . By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” You have this same gospel now taught and preached to you by Christ’s undershepherd, the pastor God sends to your church. And so I can tell you: Jesus did this for you! Jesus is your good shepherd! He gives you life, life abundantly and eternally with him!

So it is not normal for us not to be able to be gathered in church to hear the preaching of God’s Word from the pulpit, by our pastor. It is not normal for us not to be able to hear the pastor proclaim the word of Absolution to us: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s not normal not to be able to sit in Bible class, to hear the Scriptures taught and explained in depth.

“And to the fellowship”: That’s the second thing they were devoting themselves to. The “fellowship.” The Greek word here is “koinonia.” Maybe you’ve heard that word, it’s used often enough. “Koinonia” can be translated “fellowship,” “participation,” “communion.” Having things in common–that’s the root idea. All of the people in the koinonia sharing in the same things. And for the church, our koinonia starts in what we have in common from God. We all have been baptized in the name of the triune God. We all have received the gift of faith and the Holy Spirit. We all know the love of God in Christ. And we all share in same body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament. “The holy things for the holy ones,” and that Holy Communion in Christ’s body and blood binds us together as the communion of saints, God’s holy people, the church.

But our koinonia, our fellowship, then proceeds into the life we share. We as church share a life together. We are all baptized into the body of Christ, the church, and each one has a part to play in the functioning of the body. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,” the writer to the Hebrews says, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Your physical presence in the congregation is a visible encouragement to your brothers and sisters gathered there around you. Your voice, added to their voices, singing the hymns, confessing the Creed–this too is an encouragement to your fellow believers. And in the church gathered, we stir up one another to love and good works. We get to know one another. We find out our fellow members’ needs and their joys. We discover ways to help. All this is diminished when we’re not there.

Look at the church in Acts 2, look at their koinonia. Their life together was even more than just sixty minutes on Sunday morning. They met together throughout the week. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” They helped out in practical ways. If someone was in need, they helped them out. They shared meals together. They were a real community, a real family. That was their normal, and let that be our normal too. It is not normal when we are forced to be apart for a long period of time. We are not meant to be socially distant and self-isolating. The church scattered needs to be the church gathered. Koinonia means life together.

“And they were devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” The breaking of “the” bread. Notice the definite article. Some translations leave it out. But it’s there for a reason. “The breaking of the bread” was a term in the early church to refer to the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The early church was a sacramental church, and so are we. What is truly normal is to be gathered for Word and Sacrament every Sunday. In Holy Communion, we share in the breaking of the bread that is Christ’s body. We share in the cup that is Christ’s blood. For you. For the forgiveness of sins. I’m sorry, but you just can’t get that, the Sacrament of the Altar, except at the altar. I’m not talking about when I take Holy Communion to shut-ins at the nursing home. But now I can’t even do that. So this is not normal. Normal is Sunday morning, in church, receiving the Sacrament together in person.

The breaking of the bread and “the prayers.” That’s the fourth thing they devoted themselves to. “The prayers”: Notice the definite article, “the,” and the plural, “prayers.” Some translations just have “prayer,” but here it says “the prayers.” And these were people who were used to set liturgical prayers, these first Jewish Christians. They had the Book of Psalms, they had liturgical worship. So “the prayers” is what you would expect. Not to say that extemporaneous prayer is wrong. By no means. But this was a church that would pray “the prayers.” Like we do, in worship. We come before our God with all kinds of prayers: confession, thanksgiving, intercession, supplication, hymns of praise. These prayers are good and acceptable to God our Father, for the sake of his Son, Jesus Christ. And it’s normal that we come together as church to join in the prayers.

Self-isolation, social distancing, masks, virtual church–all of this is not normal. And so this will never be “the new normal.” Very soon we need to get back to the real normal. And the real normal is this: “And they were devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” This is God’s good and gracious will for his church, and may his will be done.

Published in: on May 2, 2020 at 7:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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